Cruising Scotland’s Islands on the Hebridean Princess

Hebridean Princess at anchor off the Isle of Iona

Hebridean Princess at anchor off the Isle of Iona (Photo by Stillman Rogers Photography © 2013)

As we approached the ship, an opening skirl sounded from a piper on the upper deck, and he piped us aboard to the rousing strains of Scotland the Brave.

So began our immersion into Scotland’s Western Isles, where more often than the highland pipes, the cries of swooping gannets, the mournful warnings of foghorns and the whistle of wind playing through ancient stones would fill our ears.

And the bleat of Soay sheep. We met these shaggy unkempt creatures at our first stop, after a night at sea to reach the remote St. Kilda archipelago. Wild and prehistoric in appearance, they seemed like prototypes of the balls of white fleece we saw on other island moors. Here on St. Kilda, they seemed to fit in perfectly with the row of ruined stone houses overlooking the tiny harbor where our tender from the Hebridean Princess landed.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Scotland’s Hebrides are filled spectacular scenery, castles, prehistoric sites and Scottish culture.
  • Queen Elizabeth II chooses Hebridean Princess to cruise the shores of her realm; it’s the only ship with the Royal Warrant.
  • Good for those who love the sea, islands, birds, history and shipboard luxury.

So wild and windswept and remote are these islands that their entire human population – remnants of settlers whose origins are lost in the Atlantic mists that circle its jagged cliffs – petitioned for resettlement to the mainland in 1932. When they arrived they were amazed at a sight they’d never seen: trees.

Hirta, remains of black houses with reconstructed white houses from the 1860s

Restored and ruined stone houses on St. Kilda (Photo by Stillman Rogers Photography © 2013)

St Kilda was a good overture for the week, setting the tone both historically (evidence of Viking visits have been found there) and ornithologically: Its lofty cliffs and sea stacks are home to 62,000 fulmer, 60,000 gannet, 44,000 petrel and 142,000 puffins. A fellow passenger taught me to distinguish species by their flight patterns as they soared past.

This avid birder was among the 48 others with whom we shared the floating country house. They varied in age — although gray seemed a popular hair color — and in enthusiasms, bringing a mix of passions, historical, nautical, and culinary. A gentleman from Birmingham brought a gold mine of World War II expertise, holding us spellbound with stories of these islands’ role. Another seemed to know the location of every prehistoric site in the Western Isles.

But it was onboard guide Rita Adams who swept us into island life and culture. With Rita’s evening talks we were well equipped to step ashore with knowing smiles – we knew a bit about the laird of that castle! – and a sense of wonder at these outposts whose shores Vikings, Irish monks and floundering ships had reached before us. Her mixture of historical facts laced with legend, natural science and cultural insights, with a dash of local gossip, provided us a sense of place. We were ready to absorb whatever experience awaited us.

Ghosts on Isle Martin

I personally absorbed a lot of buttery shortbread and strong tea (stops at tearooms in ports were compliments of the ship) along with the history and culture. Ashore at Isle Martin, a nature reserve where there was no tea shop, our tender carried a huge wicker picnic hamper. Amid the historical exhibits inside the nature reserve building, we found our genial purser dispensing sweet biscuits and hot tea, which he offered to lace with a wee dram to counter the chill from our walk.

That walk had brought us close to the harsh realities of these islands. Martin was abandoned within our own lifetimes, most of its homes in ruin or dilapidated abandon, gardens overgrown with nettles and purple thistle. Some still held bits of furniture too cumbersome to carry away. Across a meadow at the far end of the overgrown lane we found the empty shell of the schoolhouse, a single room where ghosts of children’s voices whispered. They had grown up and moved to a more promising future than this lonely island offered.

A Castle in Castle Bay

Kisimul Castle Isle of Barra home of the Clan MacNeil

Kisimul Castle Isle of Barra home of the Clan MacNeil (Photo by Stillman Rogers Photography © 2013)

Not all our shore stops were on abandoned islands. On Barra we found the busy little port of Castle Bay, with a friendly pub and a red sandstone castle rising from the water. A small bus took us the length of the island to three tiny chapels of Cille Bharra, dating from Norse times, and to the island’s airport at Eiolgarry.

There at the edge of a wide beach stood the terminal and tower, but no runway. We lingered to watch a plane land and take off along the hard-packed beach – at low tide, of course. Then a few of us climbed over a stile to follow a path through the dunes to a long crescent of perfect beach, just powdery white sand, pale green dune grass and bright blue sea.

In its own way, each island offers a feast of shapes and colors for the eyes, with their dramatic soaring cliffs and sea stacks topped with brilliant green sheep-dotted meadows. How, we wondered, could animals cling to these vertiginous pastures if not by Velcro?

Harris Tweed and Ancient Stones

Sheep gave rise to the most famous industry on Lewis and Harris. Here on the outer islands the bright geometry of tartans is seen less often than the speckle of Harris tweed. We admired its endless varieties and earthy hues in a crowded shop in Stornoway, and returned to the ship wearing new caps and jackets.

Standing Stones of Callanish, Isle of Lewis

Standing Stones of Callanish, Isle of Lewis (Photo by Stillman Rogers Photography © 2013)

Nearby we were carried back again to the past, by ragged prehistoric stones forming a Celtic cross atop a hill at Callanish and iron-age Carloway Broch towering above tiny farmhouses. These ancient man-made features blend back into the landscapes that their stones were pulled from, more reminders of the timeless qualities of the islands. Nature here seems barely contained, let alone tamed; even the bright flowers in the cottage gardens seem only somewhat domesticated.

Scottish Strawberries and Haggis

It’s a land for the senses, and our week exploring it on the Hebridean Princess tantalized all of ours – often simultaneously, as with the glistening red fresh-picked island strawberries. These, I discovered, were always available for dessert and I took full advantage of their short season.

Strawberries were not the only taste of Scotland. The ship’s menu featured local lamb and beef, Highland venison, fish and shellfish from the waters we sailed in, farmhouse cheese from Mull, smoked salmon, and at the captain’s gala dinner, that most Scottish of all dishes: haggis.

That final night held a surprise for us all, including the captain. One of our fellow passengers, formally kilted, addressed the haggis. I’d heard the haggis saluted before, but never so splendidly – nor, I must admit, so stirringly. After the ship’s piper had heralded the haggis into the dining room on its silver tray, this passenger proclaimed the glories of the dish in Robert Burns’ words and flawless Scottish:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,

Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!

Then he slayed it with a dirk, and we all shared it… splashed with a wee dram.

Practicalities

  • From March through mid-November, the Hebridean Princess sails on 5—9-night itineraries exploring lochs, bays, islands and ports from the Orkneys to Northern Ireland. Some cruises have themes, such as country houses, gardens or walking, and all have expert shipboard guides.
  • The best weather is likely to be in June and September, although remember that Scotland is known for its “interesting” climate. June’s long days assure the most daylight hours.
  • The five-star luxury ship has some single cabins, and its relaxed country-house atmosphere is friendly to solo travelers.
  • Hebridean Island Cruises website is filled with details about the islands and the itineraries.